“Saale, kal kuch kar. Pichhle do match mein bahaar baithkar dusron ke liye taali maar raha hai. Wahaan jaake khel, log tereko taali bajayenge.”
[Bugger, do something tomorrow. You’ve been sitting outside and clapping for others. Go out there and score, others will clap for you].
Pravin Amre knew in his mind he was firing up Shreyas Iyer, the boy he’d known as a 12-year-old, ahead of what he believes was a make-or-break Ranji Trophy fixture in Kanpur in December 2014.
Amre, Mumbai’s head coach then, had staved off opposition from certain quarters, but eventually had his way with Iyer’s selection, despite two failures in his first two matches. It didn’t help that Mumbai’s campaign was in doldrums. A first-ever loss to Jammu & Kashmir was followed by Railways grabbing first-innings points.
Amre’s job, and Iyer’s position, were both under scrutiny. But four days later, Iyer, all of 19 then, not only made his mark as a red-ball batter, but perhaps ended up saving Amre’s job, too. In Kanpur, a Mumbai batting star had emerged.
Seven years later, Iyer returns to this very scene of his emergence. At the same Green Park where he made a competent UP attack, comprising Praveen Kumar and Ankit Rajpoot, look pedestrian. On Thursday, Iyer will be India’s 303rd male Test cricketer. A cap that has taken its time coming. One that has come after 4592 first-class runs in 54 matches at an average of 52.18.
“He deserves it,” Amre says.
The circumstances of his breakout knock deserve a mention.
On a green top, Mumbai had sunk to 53 for 5 in response to UP’s 206. As wickets kept tumbling, Iyer was making a mad dash of his own in the dressing room. He had forgotten his kit in the team hotel. A furious Amre looked on even as Iyer hurriedly put on Shardul Thakur’s gear and walked out to bat.
“Pravin sir was unhappy. In my head I was being knocked,” Iyer said after that breakout knock. “I knew if I did not score runs there, I would have been bombarded from all sides.”
He went out and flayed his third ball over the bowler’s head. Standing two steps out of the crease, he whipped Praveen Kumar from outside off to the midwicket fence off his fourth ball, and crashed a glorious extra cover drive off the next delivery. Before UP could react, Mumbai were on the march once again.
Six boundaries flowed off Iyer’s first 10 balls. By the time Iyer walked off, he’d blasted 75 demoralising runs against UP. Mumbai built a lead, went on to win and turned their disastrous Ranji campaign in style. Iyer finished the season with 809 runs. And to banish any murmurs of second-season blues, he followed that with a blockbuster 1321 runs, ending just 95 runs short of VVS Laxman’s then record for the most runs in a Ranji Trophy season, in the 2015-16 season which Mumbai won.
“It proved to be a turning point for him,” Amre recounts. “It’s amazing he’s now debuting at the very venue where he first made a mark.”
This isn’t Iyer’s first brush with the Indian Test team. In March 2017, he was called in as Virat Kohli’s replacement for the fourth and final Test against Australia in Dharamsala. He only joined the squad on the eve of the Test but got to spend the week and soak in a series-defining victory.
That call-up was a result of a dominating display a few weeks earlier in a warm-up game that was accorded first-class status. Iyer copped a mouthful from the visitors but gave back in kind.
“Show us what you’ve got, I can’t see anything in your game,” David Warner sledged Iyer as he took strike. He responded by stepping out and hitting Nathan Lyon for six off the very first ball he faced. Iyer would go on to make 202*, his highest first-class score till date.
The fearlessness in Iyer’s game stems from the immense self-confidence he has. And it’s unique because at the time of his emergence, Mumbai players swore by the “khadoos” mentality. Iyer was different. He not only veered away from it, but spoke refreshingly about how khadoos wasn’t his style.
He wanted to take the game head on, and not get bogged down. It’s instead about instincts and without any half-measures. It perhaps explains his incredible strike rate of 82 over 54 first-class matches. At the Ranji Trophy final in 2015-16, Iyer made a match-winning 117 at a strike rate of 82.
That double-ton against the Australians in 2017 came off just 210 deliveries. In the same year, against a competent New Zealand A attack, comprising Matt Henry, Lockie Ferguson and Ish Sodhi, Iyer scored 108 and 82, both at better than a run a ball, in the two unofficial Tests in Vijayawada.
Amre, a man with a sharp eye for talent, remembers giving Iyer a million instructions as head coach, only to see his ward attempt the complete opposite. The fearless look in Iyer’s eyes and a calm assurance while explaining his methods convinced him of the need to let him hone his own style.
“He’s got his own style, I was criticised so many times [about the need to change his style],” Amre says. “Most of the time as Mumbai batters, we’re not just khadoos, but also copy book. He was the guy who used to go and whack the first ball to the on side, and some experts never liked that. Mumbai cricket was based on taking your time in the middle, getting settled, but from ball one he wanted to dominate. I also promoted him because this was his own style, and I didn’t want to lose his style.
“He started off at No. 6-7, I challenged him he has to be batting at 3. And then I was looking for options [as coach], he came up and said he’ll do the job at three. It was his self-confidence that spoke volumes of his ability.”
Four years ago, after he missed his India debut by a whisker, Amre remembers a disappointed Iyer expressing hurt.
“He’s a good student of the game, knows the competition he faces,” he says. “Four-five years back he said, if I’d been playing for any other country, I would’ve played Tests. I told him, it doesn’t come easy, it’s worth waiting to get your Test cap. He’s generally outspoken but respects his seniors but knows his game and backs his instincts. He won’t show-off, he’s a confident guy who likes taking up challenges.
“When you’re playing T20s, one-day and four-day, the challenge for Iyer was to adapt quickly. And he was very open and receptive. He had complete trust in me, open to listen to the changes I had the authority to tell him. This season it was key for him to emerge from the shoulder surgery, those months were key for him to refresh.
“Any cricketer is anxious, given the middle order we have with India,” Amre says. “As a coach, the challenge was to return to the benchmark we had set before his injury, and we had to build our way towards it. Sitting at home, it was really frustrating for him, he hates sitting indoors. So those two months were critical. He was spot on with his rehabilitation, we built gradually towards his resumption.”
What are the aspects of his red-ball game that has tremendously improved since he first saw him in the Mumbai set up?
“His knack to hit boundaries, his ability to get the game moving, get hundred runs in a session can take the game away from opponents,” he says. “He focuses on driving the game forward, not just occupy the crease.”
When Iyer walks out to bat at Green Park, it’s safe to assume he’ll have thousands clapping for him. From a newcomer in 2014 to a seasoned campaigner in 2021, his return to Kanpur will also complete a circle of sorts in his career.